The popularity of biography

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This past spring, Hermione Lee delivered the Lionel Trilling Seminar at Columbia University on the subject of literary biography in general and the life of Edith Wharton in particular. Such an event would not have taken place when I came to the university two decades ago. In those days, literary theory was all the rage, and biography was condescended to as an "undertheorized" and therefore unserious genre--a higher form of gossip that belonged on the beach-house bookshelf with bodice-rippers and barbecue cookbooks. If a young scholar thought of submitting a biography as his "tenure book," some more seasoned colleague would have told him what Madame Merle tells Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady: "That is very crude of you....What do you call [the] self? Where does it begin? Where does it end?"

That was long ago. We are all theorists now, at least in the rudimentary sense of conceding that facts do not add up by sheer accumulation to truth, and that motives are often unknowable, and that the mysterious force we call the market may be as much responsible as the will of the artist for the production and consumption of works of art. None of these notions is the least bit new, but their resurgence means that the idea of a "definitive" biography--once a standard term of praise--has been pretty much discarded.

And yet biography is booming again, even in the academy, all the methodological and epistemological skepticism notwithstanding. Hermione Lee is arguably its leading practitioner. A few years ago, in the brief opening sentence of Virginia Woolf's Nose: Essays on Biography, she summed up nicely why the form will always be with us: "We all want stories." And of all the forms of literary criticism, biography is most likely to deliver what we want:

History, politics, sociology, gossip, fiction, literary criticism, psychoanalysis, documentary, journalism, ethics, and philosophy are all scrambled up inside the genre. But the target of all these approaches is a living person in a body ... through all the documents and letters and witnesses, the conflicting opinions and partial memories and fictionalized versions, we keep catching sight of a real body, a physical life: the young Dickens coming quickly into a room, sprightly, long-haired, bright-eyed, dandyish, in a crimson velvet waistcoat or tartan trousers .... Rimbaud, dust-covered and scrawny and dressed in baggy grey khaki trousers, leading a caravan of camels across the desert sands of Abyssynia .... Edith Wharton and Henry James, veiled and hatted, tucked up comfortably in the back of the Panhard behind the chauffeur, exchanging impressions as they zoom along the empty French roads.


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